Michelle is certain that Eric, her husband of 10 years, is going to leave her. "He says he loves me," the 35-year-old civil engineer says, "but I know he doesn't mean it. And it's all because I'm too fat."
Michelle never dreamed that anyone would fall in love with an ugly, overweight girl like her.
"My mother convinced me of that. And she would hit me or scream at me whenever I didn't do something right."
Miserable at home--her father, whom she adored, pretended not to notice--Michelle buried herself in books. She met Eric in a college physics lab and fell instantly in love with the shy, soft-spoken young man who really seemed to care about her.
But in all the time they've been married, she says, he has never stopped criticizing her weight.
"He's always suggesting some new book or diet. He makes me nuts."
What hurts the most is that Eric doesn't want to spend time with her anymore.
"After work, he heads straight to the gym to play basketball, and he doesn't get home before 10 p.m."
On the rare nights that they're home together, she reports, he sits on the couch and watches TV--just like his father did. If she goes over to sit next to him to cuddle, he gets up and walks into the other room.
"Pretty soon," Michelle adds, "he'll fall in love with some waif-like, 19-year-old who worships him and leave me for good."
Eric, 37, an executive with a paper company, can't believe the way his wife misinterprets everything.
"You know, I can't get this woman to believe that I love her," he says with a sigh. "Yes, I want her to lose weight, but the reason I talk to her about her diet and tell her what to eat and urge her to exercise is not because I think she's ugly. It's unhealthy to be as heavy as she is--pure and simple. I haven't asked her to wear a bikini or to win an Olympic medal. The only thing I have ever asked is that she lose a little weight. Why can't she do that?"
Eric admits, though, that he finds Michelle's neediness hard to handle.
"She smothers me," he says. "I can't go to the bathroom for five minutes to take out my contact lenses without her saying, 'Eric, Eric, where are you?' "
Nor does he much appreciate the way he says she exaggerates.
"She makes it sound as if I'm out all the time. That's not true. I play basketball twice a week for two hours tops," he says.
"Look," he adds, "I'm not the lovey-dovey type--my family was much more reserved than hers. We certainly never screamed at each other in the way she screams at me."
Eric wants to stay married, but the more Michelle tries to pull him closer, the faster he runs the other way.
"Although on the surface this couple is fighting about Michelle's weight problem, we believed that issue was a red herring," say Evelyn Moschetta and Paul Moschetta, a New York counseling team.
Many times, the ostensible reason a couple will come to counseling masks another underlying issue. True, Michelle needs to consult a weight-loss specialist, but that's not a marital problem. Michelle and Eric need to concentrate on reconciling their very different emotional styles.
Michelle is outgoing, demonstrative and desperate for affection. When she senses any distance from Eric, she grows anxious. She eats, and she clings to him.
Eric is the epitome of the rational man. Raised in an orderly, undemonstrative household, where independence was valued, he recoils from his wife's dependency.
What's more, in his home people rarely raised their voices. When his wife speaks angrily, his emotional hot button is pushed, and he withdraws.
Our relationship with our mate often triggers emotions that hark back to childhood. How can you determine each other's hot buttons?
Think about what each of you needs most in a relationship--and what frightens you the most. Share your thoughts with your spouse, and then look for ways to meet your own and each other's needs.
For instance, aware that she is too attached to Eric, Michelle can make plans to see friends or go to a movie on the nights he plays ball.
If Eric knows that when he closes off from his wife she panics, he can offer small, consistent signs of affection--a quick call from work, a hug on the way out the door--to let her know how much he does love her.